Thursday, July 05, 2012

"Originalists" assume Founding Fathers were of One Mind

E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post writes today about The Founders' True Spirit.

Dionne says that because our diverse nation is bound by its "founding principles" and not by blood, race, or ethnicity, constitutional questions enter our political discussions more often than in other countries.  This has the advantage that we tend to be open and argue on the basis of high principle.

The disadvantage is that we tend to disguise our differences on policy with differences over whether a preferred policy is "constitutional".  Rather than discussing policy in terms of "will it work", "will it solve the problem it's designed to solve", and "is it a problem government should do something about", it becomes a discussion on whether or not an idea violates the Constitution.

Quite often this discussion includes the claim from today's Constitutional "originalists" that the Constitution means what the Founding Fathers - inspired by God, perhaps - meant it to mean.  This approach relies on the very large assumption that the Founding Fathers were of one mind, that all had an "original intent" in common.  But Dionne points out that in 1790, within two years of the Constitution's ratification, two of the Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (both Federalists, by the way), were in strong disagreement over whether or not a central bank was constitutional.  As Dionne suggests:

Those who claim we can be so certain of the “original” intentions of the Founders should take note: If two of the authors of the Constitution came to such a stark point of disagreement so quickly, what exactly does “originalism” mean?

Dionne suggests it is dangerous to think of our Founders as "quasi-religious prophets" who produced text of a Biblical or Talmudic nature.  Citing Gordon Wood, a highly regarded contemporary scholar of the founding era, he notes the Founders were men of character yet had no "divine insight" into politics and that they were "as enmeshed in historical circumstances as we are."

Of particular relevance to Dionne and very interesting to me is this quote from Madison from Federalist #14:

Is it not the glory of the people of America that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?
Dionne's conclusion:  "We would be truer to the Founders’ intentions and spirit if we followed Madison in having more confidence in our own good sense and our knowledge of our own situation."

The column is worth reading in full.